Once jailed with MLK, Robinson remembered as civil rights pioneer, motivator



Former North Courtland Mayor Ronald Jones remembers the first time he met Ernestine Robinson.

“I was in awe,” Jones said. “I knew she marched with Martin Luther King and went to jail several times marching for her rights back in the 1960s.”

A longtime educator in Lawrence County, Robinson was known for knocking down racial barriers and standing up for what she thought was right.

She was buried in the Moulton Memory Gardens on Wednesday, Oct. 16, on what would have been her 78th birthday. She died Oct. 10 after a long battle with cancer.

“She wanted the best for everybody. It doesn’t matter if they were black or white,” Jones said moments after he and more than 100 others attended her funeral. “She was a motivator. When I was the mayor, she was always encouraging me and making sure I was applying for grants to make the community better. That woman had a heart of gold.”

He said Robinson lifted his spirits after he lost a close and contested race for his fourth term as mayor in 2016. “She told me, ‘Ronald keep your head up, you did a good job.' ”

She was the mother of former North Courtland Police Chief Alex Taylor and three daughters.

“Through Alex, I got to know Ernestine quite well,” Jones said. “She gave respect, and she demanded it. She opened a lot of doors for not just black students but white students, too. She was a bundle of love with a smile that I will miss.”

Robinson marched in the civil rights movement in Birmingham as a student at Miles College in Fairfield.

"While attending Miles College, she was a dedicated participant in the civil rights movement, being jailed over 11 times along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.," according to her obituary.

After leaving Miles College, Robinson started her education career as a reading teacher at the segregated Moulton High School in 1967. She later taught at East Lawrence High for more than 30 years.

In a 1981 interview with The Decatur Daily, Robinson said she used love as a teaching tool.

“All kids respond to love,” she said. “And there’s just not enough love in schools. Sitting in our classrooms today are the Benjamin Franklins, the Frederick Douglasses and the Booker T. Washingtons of the next decades. I try to teach the students that we all may be mediocre people, but we don’t have to think mediocre thoughts. Once you make them question, half of the battle is won and people who can think don’t make me mad.”

Her love for teaching ran deep. She compared her classroom to a place where she could accomplish as much as Thomas Jefferson or the Wright brothers.

Longtime East Lawrence bookkeeper Reta Waldrep said Robinson, an English teacher, was "marvelous" with her students.

"She treated the white kids no different than the black kids," Waldrep said. "All of the kids respected her. If the kids needed help, she helped them."

Waldrep said from time to time Robinson would talk about marching in civil rights protests.

"She said Martin Luther King went about trying to change America's culture the right way," she said. "By staging marches and talking, not using violence."

One of Robinson’s former East Lawrence High students, Donna Cartee, remembers Robinson keeping an “orderly classroom” and being fair to all students.

“If you did what you were supposed to do in her classroom, she didn’t have a problem with you,” Cartee said.

North Courtland councilman Lee Langham said he first met Robinson in the late 1980s when he served as president of the Lawrence County Chapter of the NAACP.

“She was a very outspoken and active lady who gave me some great ideas and advice,” he said. “I’ll never forget, she told me if I don’t stand up for my rights, nobody else would either, and ‘you’ll miss the whole thing.’ She wasn’t one to bite her tongue.”

He said about 10 years later when he served on the Lawrence County school board, Robinson would often speak before the board asking for more support for Courtland High School, a majority black school that has since closed.

“She was always speaking in behalf of the black children in need in this county,” Langham said. “She definitely helped minorities advance in this county. But basically she was an advocate to make things better for all people in Lawrence County. I know she walked with Rev. King and spent time in jail for what she believed in. She was still in that mode. She’ll be deeply missed."

That determination to help others was referenced by her family in her obituary:

"Many knew her as educator, speaker, 'outside agitator,' and professional colleague, but to her family she was 'Stine,' a woman who tried as hard as she could to do all the good that she could."



(1) comment

Beth McCarley

Mrs. Robinson was the best teacher that I ever had. She taught us Patience and Encouraged us to think for Ourselves! She often spoke about her Civil Rights marches with MLK. At times, I was awestruck just to hear what she had gone through. She taught us to think for ourselves and broadened our horizons with her Encouragement to be the very best that we could be! She not only taught English, she taught us Life skills and taught us to Stand up for what was right and true! I will be forever Grateful to her for broadening my Horizons and teaching us about Empathy and reaching for our Dreams. She taught us that the only thing to stop us from achieving our Goals was Ourselves! She will be sorely missed ... we not only lost an Educator, We lost a Dear friend who taught us about the reality of Prejudice and how to overcome. Thank-you my friend, you have left a void in the lives of many!

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